The Nomadic Child – Cheryl Achieng Okuthe

With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that growing up in multiple cities and countries and thus being exposed to numerous cultures has equipped me with the capacity to thrive in changing circumstances in spite of the negative effects that are often associated with being raised in such a manner. One of the main consequences of constantly having to relocate as a child is not having full control over the events and experiences in your life. As simple as it may appear, learning to cope in an environment that frequently changes is a challenge for a substantial number of people and there are some who spend their entire lives trying to learn how to adjust to that situation.

During my childhood, I can’t ever recall living in one city for more than three years at a time prior to university. My parents, being academics, transferred back and forth between different universities. When I was much younger there was a thrill to the constant movement, it felt like a permanent family vacation or perpetual family adventure. Aside from acquiring the coping skills that enabled me to handle the constant change, I also developed an inherent desire for continuous change. After living in one place for a few months or a couple of years, I found myself yearning for the next adventure. This hunger for constant change is also said to be one of the many things afflicting Generation Y which is as a consequence of the expanding technological age. This generation was and continues to be  exposed to new dynamics, which is exhilarating but has also had an addictive side effect.

There weren’t any residual consequences to this way of life until the last couple of years of my primary schooling when my family and I relocated and I had to leave my first close-knit group of friends. At this point in my life I had begun to establish a homestead so when I was suddenly uprooted from the comfort of finally getting settled, it was quite traumatic.

These events had a huge impact on future social interactions with my peers. I was unwilling to interact with other children and found myself spending more and more time at home with my parents. There were even times when my teachers showed serious concern. From that point on I began to perfect the art of assimilation; a performance of sorts that I used often because I needed to immerse myself in the culture of the new town or community I entered. However, the relationships and friendships I developed with other people were superficial. I felt as though I were playing a role, smiling and showing concern on cue. As a result, I found my capacity to empathise beginning to fade. I had never been given the opportunity to engage with people on a deeper level. A lot of people, in situations they consider stressful, find ways to detach themselves from those situations. This was mine.

As I entered the later stages of my adolescence, maintaining these superficial friendships began to take its toll. Not only was it exhausting, it became irritating. Getting to know new people over and over again also became burdensome. I often thought, ‘what for? I’m going to be leaving soon anyway.’ Never fully being myself soon spawned feelings of resentment, not only towards my parents, but towards myself and other people. I felt isolated and alone despite the fact that this isolation was primarily my own doing.

As I grew older, those around me began to catch on to my ‘façade’ and registered the superficiality of my interactions with them. I soon stopped socialising all together as the aim of the assimilation was rendered obsolete. I found myself experiencing strong feelings of depression or anger. Nevertheless, my isolation led me to develop a sense of self-awareness and independence. Of course, as a teenage girl I experienced the inevitable self-esteem issues but I came to appreciate the strong personality traits and resilience I had developed. Playing a role for most of my young life allowed to me to simply sit back and observe the behaviour of others. I was the Sir Attenborough of sorts in people’s everyday lives. I soon learned to trust my judgment and my instincts.

I’ve often wondered whether a person could still suffer from an identity crisis even though they have a reasonable sense of self-awareness. When I was younger I had difficulty establishing my cultural identity. I had always considered myself Kenyan but the amalgamation of so-called ‘Western practices or beliefs’ with traditional African values had a significant influence in shaping my own cultural identity. This is something that a lot young Africans experience nowadays but since I had a largely Christian upbringing, the conflict that arises between these two cultures has never really impacted me to the extent that it has other African youths. Undoubtedly, this was one of the reasons why my self-awareness, independence and cultural identity were formed very easily.

After the bouts of loneliness I experienced during my adolescence, I found a few people I could relate to within the vast, diverse student population of my university. Finding common experiences amongst some of my fellow students liberated me from my self-imposed isolation. Although I revelled in the feeling of uniqueness, finding people who could relate to me was worth so much more.

Frequently moving from country to country and city to city was extremely stressful and negatively impacted how I chose to interact with people around me. But there were many benefits to having this kind of childhood as well. I experienced a great sense of global identification, developed an appreciation for the different cultures I’ve been exposed to and was able to immerse myself in them without losing grips on my own culture. I have also established a strong awareness of my unique cultural identity which is a great source of pride for me. There is a lot of truth in the saying that you are shaped by the moments and milestones of your life and the same applies to me. There is no denying that my childhood was tremulous but it moulded me into a resilient and well-rounded person. Looking back, I believe that I coped reasonably well despite the ups and downs I went through during my adolescence, the most pivotal period in my life so far. I cannot say that without all the experiences that I have gone through I would be the person I am today.

 

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Mid-year musings

It’s been an unacceptably long time since I’ve posted something on this blog…165 days to be exact. Honestly, I’ve had a serious mental block and have been feeling a little unmotivated. Between studying towards a master’s degree in human rights on the most intense academic programme I have ever been on and being on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster lately, I’ve found myself unable to write anything. I scrapped pretty much all the posts that I started working on as they just didn’t resonate enough with me to post them. But life would be rather dull if we didn’t have the opportunity to battle through and triumph over the bad times to experience the good. I’ve finally wrapped up the first semester of the programme so I thought I’d go back to doing some writing that isn’t for a grade.

 

To say that the past four months have been intense is quite the understatement. Never in my life have I experienced anything so academically challenging, highly demanding and mentally-exhausting. I knew doing a master’s degree, which is what I always wanted to do would be challenging, but I guess I took it for granted just how much. In spite of how hectic it’s been and my occasional slips back into bouts of anxiousness, I’ve managed to overcome it without any major hiccups. My classmates and I have been worked really hard and I’m certain we can conquer almost anything the workplace or further studies throws at us.

 

An unexpected consequence of getting back into the classroom as a student, is that I’ve once again become sharply conscious about my cultural and linguistic and identity. In a programme that places a lot of emphasis on comparative study of best practices and learning how to improve the human rights situation in one’s “home” country, not feeling like I have a home makes for exciting opportunity to learn from others but also, to a large extent, makes me feel somewhat isolated from and out-of-touch with my country of origin and the continent.

 

The numerous introductions our class has had to make during short courses, special events and to visiting lecturers have been exhausting for the entire class a bit of an anathema for me because I’m always confronted with one of my favourite questions: “where do you come from?” I say that with a heavy dose of sarcasm which you’ll understand if you read one of my previous blog posts on that same question. At first, I would give my usually go-to response: “I’m Zambian, but I live in South Africa” or “I’m ‘originally’ Zambian” but ten introductions in, I got over it and simply began introducing myself as Zambian, no qualifications whatsoever, and prayed to my creator that I wouldn’t be called upon to give any examples in class of the human rights situation in Zambia of which I have extremely elementary knowledge haha. But this is what I signed up for so I just shrug it off. When I think about it, it’s quite comical that questions as simple as, “where do you come from?” or “who is Zambian in this class?” can make my stomach churn and my palms sweaty. A bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but I really don’t like answering that question because honestly, I wish I didn’t matter to me so much. However, while this may be a little awkward for me, if anyone else senses my feelings of awkwardness, they haven’t communicated that fact to me which works just fine for me. Having to answer the question so many times, I’m pleased to say that I’ve become somewhat numb to it and it doesn’t affect me as much anymore. It’s an aspect of my existence that makes me unique so it’s something I try to embrace and am very thankful for.

 

Earlier this year, I made a decision to take each day as it comes, keep my anxiety levels down and focus on enjoying myself. I’ve interacted with some extraordinary people, visited some amazing spots around Pretoria, made some wonderful friends and I’ve been inspired by some beautiful souls. Now, I’m looking forward to embarking on the new adventure that awaits me at Makerere University in the second semester. I’ve never been to east Africa so I’m excited about the opportunities for growth and personal development that the remaining four months of the programme will bring. I also cannot wait to get on the Ugandan party scene which a reliable source tells me is quite vibrant. I’m also hoping to visit some of Uganda’s neighbouring countries, sample some interesting cuisine and find more inspiration for my creative endeavours. But overall, I welcome a change of scenery.

 

Although my life has completely revolved around my degree programme in the last few months and I’ve ended up temporarily neglecting some of my hobbies and interests to get through it, the mental energy to write has returned to me and I’m ready to get right back into it the artsy stuff. I have some posts in the works which will go up on this blog very soon including a few from a number of guest bloggers who will provide some great insights into the subject matter of my blog. I’m still very much a debutante in the blog writing enterprise and working to find my groove but I have high hopes for the near future.